SHENANDOAH JUNCTION — A Jefferson High School health teacher is facing felony charges for allegedly engaging in sex several times with a 17-year-old student. One alleged sexual encounter with the student occurred in a closet at the high school during school hours.
Willie Edward Belmonte Jr., 34, of Charles Town, was arrested and charged with two felonies last Thursday after a police investigation. Two students who are friends of the alleged female victim first reported the sexual encounters to a school police officer on Aug. 30, according to a criminal complaint filed in Jefferson County Magistrate Court.
After she was approached by investigators, the victim acknowledged that she had started a sexual relationship with Belmonte during the last school year, according to the complaint. The girl said the relationship resulted in Belmonte and her having sexual encounters “several times over the past year,” police maintain.
Those alleged encounters included Belmonte, who is married, sending the girl sexually explicit photos and videos of himself over a mobile phone, according to police. Belmonte also allegedly had sex with the girl at a house in Jefferson County where he was temporarily “house sitting” for a friend,
according to police.
The girl was unsure what month the intercourse occurred at the house, but she knew it happened on a Friday, police reported. However, police report that they obtained evidence on “multiple electronic devices” that support the girl’s statements.
Belmonte has been charged with child sexual abuse by a guardian and seducing a minor with obscene material. On Tuesday, he was held at the Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg while awaiting a court hearing. His pretrial bail was set a $100,000.
Child sexual abuse by a guardian carries a 10- to 20-year prison sentence. Seducing a minor with obscene material carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
A Jefferson High graduate who earned a physical education degree at Shepherd University in 2019, Belmonte was hired as a health teacher at Jefferson High on Aug. 31, 2020, according to school officials. He previously worked as a teacher in Frederick County, Maryland.
In January, Belmonte participated in a Board of Education presentation to approve a textbook for county health classes. During the presentation, he offered his opinion that teaching sexual abstinence alone in health classes doesn’t deter many teenagers from having sex.
“We’ve been teaching abstinence in this state for the better part of the last 50 years, and yet we remain in the lower 45, or the 45 ranked or lower, in teenage pregnancy,” he said. “So that’s just not working. Biology overtakes. It doesn’t matter your religion or your teachings at home. At some point, biology overtakes—the nature overcomes nurture.
“So the idea that if we strictly teach abstinence things will get better is unequivocally false.”
Belmonte called Maryland’s school system “much more progressive” in teaching students about contraceptives as early as eighth grade. “Which even then statistics show us may be even a little late to be teaching,” he added.
“There’s no reason to still be in this ancient way of thinking that we shouldn’t be teaching anything but abstinence because it’s just not feasible,” he told the school board.
Five years ago, another student was sexually seduced by a choir teacher at Jefferson High. A police investigation concluded that Joel Michael Ziler, then 29, had sexual relationships with two of the school’s female students. Later, he was convicted of sexually soliciting a minor over a computer from his home in Martinsburg.
A former church music director and a Berkeley Springs native who earned a bachelor’s degree from Shepherd University, Ziler began serving a prison sentence on Oct. 9, 2018, according to the West Virginia Division of Corrections. A parole hearing for his case is scheduled for next July. His projected release date from prison is July 9, 2028.
Ziler’s sexual offenses came to light after the hanging suicide of his friend, Jefferson High drama teacher Steve Glendenning, in the school’s auditorium. At the time, police interviewed several students and recent graduates who provided mobile phone messages in an investigation into the conduct of both teachers.
School board member Donna Joy has called on Superintendent Bondy Shay Gibson-Learn to have an independent investigation conducted into what Joy described as a permissive supervisory environment at Jefferson High over the past several years. The investigation, Joy said, should examine whether the school had lax leadership that fostered other improper relationships between teachers and students.
Joy taught math at Jefferson High from 2012 to 2019.
In a phone interview, Joy said she first reported Ziler’s suspiciously inappropriate behavior with students. She also reported other instances of what she considered inappropriate staff interactions with students, she said, but that her reports were not taken seriously or adequately looked into.
Joy also maintained that the school’s loose supervision led to at least five instances where students were caught having sex during a school-wide lunch period called Cougar Hour.
As of publication time, the Spirit hadn’t heard back from Gibson-Learn about Joy’s call for an investigation and her claims of lax supervision at the school.
Cougar Hour was instituted at Jefferson High in 2016 as a single “open lunch” or “power hour” to address a challenge to schedule sufficient lunch periods for the school’s 1,400 students.
Joy has described Cougar Hour as an undisciplined and inadequately supervised period where all of the school’s students freely roam the school’s Shenandoah Junction campus.
During a school board presentation in 2018, Sherry Fitzgerald, Jefferson High’s previous principal, said that supervision was carefully planned for Cougar Hour. Teachers are stationed at key monitoring locations, and students are barred from unsupervised areas, she said.
Students participate in various self-directed activities across the school building during Cougar Hour, Fitzgerald explained. Some students socialize and eat lunch, she said. Others do homework, practice musical instruments, receive tutoring, participate in student clubs or “go outside and get fresh air and see the sky,” she said.
Fitzgerald explained that Cougar Hour’s broad goal was to “allow students to take ownership of their educational experience and practice those pro-social and regulation skills that are so necessary for life outside of school and beyond high school.”
Gibson-Learn has yet to comment on whether Belmonte’s alleged sexual encounters occurred during Cougar Hour.
In June, after she served six years as Jefferson High’s principal, Fitzgerald was appointed to a newly created central administration office position of director of responsive education, which handles responsibilities for online and adult education programs.
Cougar Hour was discontinued this school year under a new principal, Mary Beth Group, a former Jefferson High assistant principal.
In a prepared release about Belmonte’s arrest, school officials stated that a background check of state and federal databases showed that he had no previous criminal history.
“Our justice system is rightly set up to ensure that every individual receives due process and is presumed innocent,” the release states.
“We are fully supportive of our partners in law enforcement and continue to balance their need for fair due process with our community’s need for information.”